by Paul West
Of the major North American sports, baseball is the only one whose Hall of Fame is more or less constantly surrounded by controversy. Other sports have debates about the greatest player, greatest scorer, greatest quarterback, and many other long-running public arguments; but their Halls of Fame aren’t perpetually dogged by questions about who’s in, who’s out, who’s most deserving, and even such ludicrous minutiae as how many ballots it takes someone to get in. The reasons for this have a lot to do with fundamental aspects of baseball’s history–and, perhaps most intractably, its actual structure of play.
Baseball was central to the American sports landscape for generations; and during most of that time, it was one of the few broadly acknowledged centers of American civilization. It was at the heart of the early civil rights movements; it was an early battleground for greater inclusion of women in non-domestic roles; and it was played in some form in most spheres of American society–from stickball to softball to kickball, from backyards to countrysides to blacktops. To every living generation from Gen-X backwards, baseball has been at some point a key player in the public sphere–and its heroes, villains, and antiheroes have been key players on the public stage. Its profile has diminished with regard to business and media, but in many ways its shadow still looms large–for example, in the elevated sense of ‘what it means’ to be a ‘first-ballot’ Hall of Famer, with likes of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio. Baseball’s historic significance is also why accused cheaters are seen to have sinned against heaven itself, despite the fact that cheating and rule-bending have been a selectively enforced (and selectively vilified) part of baseball culture for generations.
Game structure and player visibility
There are many ways for a player to impact any of the four major North American sports: game-stealing goalies, touchdown-machine running backs, masters of precision and power and grace at various positions. But the matter of literal and figurative visibility, and measured and tracked statistical impact, often (fairly and unfairly) helps determine a player’s level of perceived impact and–it is the key word, after all–fame. In baseball, there are simply more paths to in-game visibility–partly because there are literally more players on the field, most of whom are periodically featured in head to head to head matchups at the center of the action. In baseball, you literally see every starting player’s face except the catcher’s; and for minutes at a time, you you have reason to focus specifically on their role in the game. Compare that with, say, hockey, where a 4th-line player appears at high speeds for short bursts, their face often a blur at best, at literally a fraction of the exposure time of the top lines and top defensive pairs. It’s also only 5 on 5–not counting goalies, who usually play entire games and are their own category of stardom, though you can’t see their faces during the game (see the above comment about game-stealing stars).
In basketball, faces are visible and players are more likely to touch the ball for longer stretches; but like hockey, there’s a clear hierarchy of playing time and exposure. Impactful or not, most specialists don’t get nearly as much playing time as the starting five; accordingly, when talking about the best of the best, there are generally fewer players to choose from.
On top of this, specialization takes different forms in baseball. Being a great right fielder tends to be different than playing a great third base; being a great leadoff hitter is often quite different from a great cleanup hitter–though less so in the modern era of metrics and super-utility-players, which have mostly improved the game (despite a few attendant issues). In basketball, the apples-to-oranges debates are usually between ‘bigs’ and guards; in hockey, maybe it’s wings versus forwards or another of a smallish list of possibilities–for example, power-play specialists. Hybridization and metrics have affected these discussions in every sport, again, largely for the better; still, role players in a flowing 5 on 5 sport engage most parts of the game in a greater capacity than remotely positioned fielders in a widely spaced 9 on 9 sport.
Per the above, debates about the best at different baseball positions can vary widely. This is based on thebdifferent parameters of the positions themselves, compounded by whether the player in question is effective at the plate–or vice versa, as with great hitters who are defensively challenged. This brings us to the matter of the designated hitter and its debated importance in Hall of Fame consideration. If there was a Hall of Fame of defense, we might see Rey Ordonez enshrined; and though slugges tend to be more favored, all but the greatest designated hitters (and even a few of the greatest, as in the ludicrous case of Edgar Martinez‘s lingering candidacy) stand on the outside looking in. Other sports have ‘yeah, but did they play defense’ discussions about historically great players, but that usually affects ‘best ever’ conversations more than Hall of Fame candidacy…and again, even when it does factor in, there are fewer players to consider from historically great teams or legend-loaded eras. But in baseball, where are so many ways to parse the permutations of any player or position and so many more people who can potentially have high impact, the matter of greatness has an almost indeterminate cutoff point. Couple this with the sheer number of paths to baseball fame-compared with, for example, even a highly regarded offensive lineman or rebounding center–and you have players with decades of impact whose Hall of Fame candidacy is drowned in a sea of hard-to-parse personnel. In a sport, moreover, whose tenure in the national spotlight was the longest, even allowing for the ascendancy of the NBA, NHL, and NFL.
But what about those who’ve besmirched the game’s reputation and broken its written and unwritten rules? The cheats, bigots, and scoundrels? That’s a complex matter unto itself, but the study of history has three main functions: to respect and honor those who’ve paved our way for the better; to cautiously study the people and forces that have led us down dangerous roads; and to further understand the complexities of everything in between. If we’re going to talk about the PED-enhanced home run numbers of the Bud Selig era, we should also discuss the fact that said homers were hit off of pitchers who were using PEDs as well–and the fact that the whole thing seems to have been tacitly allowed, as well as the fact that performance enhancers have blighted the game since at least the 1970s (and experimentation by individual players goes back much farther).
All of this lends itself to one forward-looking solution: that the Baseball Hall of Fame become more of a museum, where its history is told including all twists and turns, rather than the hallowed ground it was for so long. As recent history has taught us, whitewashing history is a road fraught with pitfalls; and baseball’s long, storied history, filled with heroes and villains and scandal and redemption, in many ways mirrors our own and ought to be told as such.